Kevin Ayers: Bananamour

IN ART THE avant-garde is the outrageous. It’s what breaks traditional rules, both artistic and social; John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, or whoever, outraged their audiences.

If the term can be applied to rock it certainly can’t be applied to groups like Yes or King Crimson, whose concert are only astonishing for the amount of smugness involved. Rock’s real avant-garde are the progressive loons, people like Lol Coxhill, David Bedford, Gong, Ron Geesin, who are regularly booed off stage and whose albums are bought only by each other. Progressive lunacy is a combination of incomprehensible music – I can only hear it as random, usually ugly, sound – and incomprehensible jokes – like the obsession with early twentieth century sentimental songs. I admire these guys for their perversity but, with one exception, I usually get bored too quickly to follow them far.

The exception is Kevin Ayers. Kevin’s always been one of the pivots of progressive lunacy – see Pete Frame’s chart in Zigzag 28 – but he’s a bit different; most of the others came into rock from other music – jaz, classical – Kevin has always been a rock musician and this has kept his work at least semi-comprehensible. His technique is to put a very simple, sung melody line (it has to be simple because his voice, though charming, lacks any range or power) above an equally simple instrumental pattern; the music’s power is built not by playing complicated runs or riffs but by combining very basic rock sounds (emphasis on bass and fuzzed guitar) to create a more and more complex rhythmic drive – Kevin’s genius (like that of his teacher, David Bedford) is for arrangement; however wild the music gets the listener is pulled along with it. Kevin is also an intelligent lyricist, mocking his own pretensions, using unserious words to say serious things. The best example of these combined talents is his last album Whatevershebringswesing.

Bananamour is equally enjoyable, more immediately accessible to mainstream rock fans, and in some way less interesting. The Banana Follies – Archie Legget on bass, Eddie Sparrow on drums – are the nearest thing Kevin’s had to a straight rock band and while his basic composing technique is unchanged he takes less risks in arrangement than usual. Several of the songs are deliberate pastiches – of Nico, for example (‘Decadence’) and Syd Barrett (‘Oh! Wot A Dream’) – and Kevin is prepared to be limited by the forms involved. I think he’s decided to widen his audience (his live performances are less deliberately eccentric than they used to be) and I hope he success – there are enough good things here to satisfy everyone except the most declared old Ayers fan. Listen to how Kevin uses his key sounds – the girl back ups (Doris Troy et al) on ‘Don’t Let It Get You Down’, Steve Hillage’s fluid guitar on ‘Shouting In Bucket Blues’ the brass on ‘When Your Parents Go To Sleep’. And his words are equally witty, equally telling. Every rock writer should listen to ‘Interview’:

I have been called a clown
Yes you may write that down
And for a little money
I am extremely funny

I play before the audience
I make them laugh and shout
And when they’ve laughed for quite
a while
The door man lets them out…

© Simon FrithLet It Rock, August 1973

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